For the Russian speakers out there, here's a very handy series on how BizSpark members AtContent tweaked and worked with Windows Azure to get their company up and running. People who don't read Cyrillic can translate in Bing and enjoy the useful experience. It's important to read it, because they are using Azure as a backend to -- they hope -- transform how publishers and data / media consumers use and share on the web.
AtContent is an interesting disruption in the publishing industry. I talked to Co-Founders, Alexey Semeney and Nikita Berdnikov on a Skype call this week and got to understand the business a little better. Basically, they want to help transform blogging into a pay for articles business, which may sound like music to big publisher ears, and to the ears of small blogging businesses. But it may suffer from some issues, which Alexey and I talked about -- among them, many successful blogs got started by being free. Who will accept a pivot into something that's pay to read? We'll get into that. But first, what is AtContent, and what does it do?
Check out these links to a TechCrunch demo page and the Financial Times, one of the most successful paid circulation newspapers in the world. This Azure-hosted startup wants to make it easy for anyone to distribute articles through social networks, and then use those social networks (as well as the main pages of publishers) to serve as a kind of e-commerce store for information and media. It's a fascinating idea. If AtContent is in place, you can make your daily reading a kind of hub for media distribution, and, through sharing articles to your social networks, you can take a cut of articles you "sell" to your own readership. It's kind of like making your daily reading into a paper route. If only the music industry would have figured this out first, and made it standard practice.
We love our BizSpark startups, and we love the audacity of this Russian startup trying to do this. We think it will be difficult to change mindsets, but it's not impossible. And it may even be lucrative and beneficial to large and small publishers in the long run. Continuing to run on advertising dollars forever just doesn't seem a likely scenario, for any mainstream publication. For the best, this seems like a really great practice for any small scale publisher trying to make it big. People who will spread your articles are incentivized to accept some cut of the transaction to get your name out there for you. Spreading through cash rewards. It has worked in so many other areas, from car sales, to coupon clipping.
When you are building your company, you always end up facing that one hardest thing, or a myriad of hardest things. Every founder has experienced it, and if they haven’t, they really haven’t been a founder. At the most recent FailCon event, we dove into the hardest things Bing Fund general manager Rahul Sood has ever experienced after his talk to a lunch time crowd of founders, developers and investors. We asked him about this thinking around Microsoft’s angel fund.
The Bing Fund was recently created by Microsoft to serve as an angel investor for young startups looking to work in a few areas of the web.
This post was written by Douglas Crets, Community Manager of Microsoft BizSpark, which offers free software and support to startups less than five years old.
A high school protégée interested in gaming, Bing Fund general manager Rahul Sood developed VoodooPC machines, the first liquid-cooled PCs, with an eye of making the best PCs on the planet. In a nutshell, they were bought -- he turned down Michael Dell, who called him and emailed him personally -- and joined HP. But, as he told a crowd gathered at FailCon in San Francisco on Tuesday, he takes responsibility for taking his eye off the ball and letting HP have too much control over hiring, believing that a bigger company would do its best to bring in the right talent.
The lesson that Sood offers to startup founders as now general manager of the Bing Fund, based in Bellevue, Washington, is this: "
We asked him what are the essential pieces of what he looks for in a startup, and how he sees the developer and startup ecosystem. We thought it was important to get down to the bottom of what the head of an angel fund thinks about the world he invests in.
One takeaway from his talk, that sheds some light on this, is that he said that founders and developers should consider Microsoft as a friendly "archangel" investor, that is looking to support startups with access to Bing APIs and other technologies that other startups don't get access to. In contrast to his experience with HP, he says that he feels immediately at home with Microsoft, because it's run by people who want to do good for the world.
Many of you already know this, if you are in BizSpark.
If you are a BizSpark company and would like more information on the Bing Fund, get in touch by leaving your name in our comments section, or sending a message to us on Twitter @BizSpark. Alternatively, you can email me. My email address is on my Twitter Profile.
If you are not in BizSpark yet, you can join here. All you have to be is less than five years old, making less than one million in revenue a year, and developing software for the cloud. Here are some examples of some BizSpark companies. And, while you don't have to be in BizSpark to be considered for the Bing Fund, it is helpful to be in BizSpark to get connected to the network.
The Bing Fund currently works with two startups, both in BizSpark, and they are taking on more soon.
BizSpark: What was the hardest thing you have had to do as an employee? As a founder?
Sood: When we sold VoodooPC to HP, I went from being a founder of a small company to being an employee of a large one. The hardest part was finding the balance between trying to preserve the culture we had at Voodoo and letting go. Although I made some mistakes during that process and some of the lessons I learned were painful, I have learned a ton in the process.
BizSpark: How do you know you are falling in love with a company to be considered for the Bing Fund? What specifically do you look for in a Bing Fund company?
Sood: Let me say first of all that “falling in love with a company” is dangerous. We try not to get too enamored of any company we’re considering, because doing so could cloud our judgment. The enthusiasm that entrepreneurs have about their startups is infectious and it’s easy to get excited. Ideally we will pick companies that Microsoft will want to acquire or partner with long term. So we have to ask ourselves questions such as: Do they have a mind-blowingly breakthrough idea, or at least a unique one? What’s the level of talent in the company? And finally, how can Bing Fund help? Do we have technology assets or expertise that will get the company to the next level?
BizSpark: Where do you fall on the change habits or make things easier spectrum?
Sood: The benefit must outweigh the cost. People will only change an ingrained habit if it’s easier, less risky, or much more fulfilling to do the same thing some other way. Technology makes it easier to do banking online, so why drive to the bank? It’s less risky to use voice recognition to send texts while driving.
BizSpark: What are some of the current burdens to development for startups, and how do you address these burdens in your work?
Sood: Many people would say that funding is the major burden but I don’t see it that way. It’s cheaper than ever to get a technology startup going, and there are plenty of sources for support, such as incubators and accelerators that are popping up in every city. Microsoft’s BizSpark program gives startups free software resources for a few years, and there are plenty of free technology stacks out there. I think the major obstacle is talent. Great talent is hard to find, and it’s even harder to keep. One way to keep great talent is to ensure your vision is clear, and the problem you’re solving is real….if this is the case then you should be on a path to success. That’s what we’re trying to do – help startups succeed.
BizSpark: Why did you decide to go from building a company to funding companies? What is the harder work?
Sood: I think it’s much harder to build a company, but that’s not why I switched gears. I’ve had success (and failures) as an entrepreneur and it’s fulfilling to share what I’ve learned to help other entrepreneurs succeed. I should clarify that what we’re doing isn’t about funding. Funding is just incidental to show we have skin in the game. We’re adding much more value through the access we’re providing to technology and subject matter experts.
BizSpark: If there was a Rahul Sood’s Book Club, like Oprah’s, what three books would you rollout to begin your club?
Sood: I would recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which delves into the science of what founders face daily – decision making. And despite the controversy, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine – How Creativity Works offers compelling examples on how companies facilitate innovation.
It's time to do a quick roundup of what African entrepreneurs did this past week, while they were building their companies.
DEMO Africa ended on Friday, but that won't stop us from running our remaining interviews with some of the participants.
Big congratulations go to two of our Microsoft BizSpark members, SASA Africa and Flowgear, who both came away with the coveted DEMO Lion title out of a field of 40. In truth, the field was much bigger, since this competition was open to all of Africa.
In the run up to DEMO Africa -- and during -- we showcased the work of the several dozen entrepreneurs who bravely presented their ideas to the judges.
Hilda Moraa, MyOrder
What have you learned about managing a technological business that you would pass on to the next generation?
Managing a technological business as an individual is not possible. It requires a team that is passionate, talented and believes in technology as a strategic tool and not the magical solution to solve all problems. Understanding the technological development methodology and processes is also important to facilitate ensure easier management of the business.
I have also learnt that the most important thing is to execute and do it fast. As a technological business is dynamic, hence one needs to execute, release their product, test and validate. Its better to fail early then learn from the feedback that should inform a young business how to validate their products, answer their assumptions and plan effectively what should change or be added as valuable features in order to be successful. Most important, I have learnt it’s important to connect the technology with business. As the technology solution cannot work solemnly, one needs to identify how they can use that technology as an enabler to then solve the real needs that will create revenue or ‘scratch an itch’
What came first for your company – the product idea or your existence on the internet?
The existence of the Internet came first. And it was through this existence that the development of electronic tools, infrastructure, protocols of communication that have then had a huge impact to the development of electronic commerce. Including the rise of telecommunications that has resulted to rapid numbers of mobile subscribers to further facilitate execution of commercial transactions electronically.
Thanks to the growth of the Internet access via mobile phones, many businesses today are not only interested in showcasing their products online, but also allowing their customers to transact by placing orders. Their customers would like to do so through the most convenient device at their disposal: their mobile phones. A need that Myorder retail has bridged by offering a hosted solution that puts a “mobile menu” in the hands of a customer. Items that one has for sale can be selected, and orders placed. Each business gets a simple, attractive mobile web catalog. Notifications are sent to a designated mobile phone of choice when an order is placed, detailing the name and phone number of the customer, current location, as well as the pricing and details of the order.
Kekeli Buckner, KKYB Productions
I have learned a lot about managing a technological business but two of the most important things I have learned include the fact that technology keeps developing and in order to stand out as a business in that field we must be abreast with the latest trends in the industry and be innovative too.
I have also learnt to work effectively with my team and not make decisions single handedly because some of them know more than I do in the field of technology. So basically what I would pass on to the next generation is that they should think smart, be creative, work together as a team and keep the right attitude because one cannot know it all.
Who inspired you the most this week, and why?
For this week I would say Mrs. Gloria Buckman Yankson inspired me most. She is the CEO of Planit Ghana and has been nominated for the 2nd International Award in under a year via the 2012 Ghana UK Based Achievement (GUBA) Awards. I saw it on her facebook profile. Even though I have not spoken to her yet, I have been to events where she was giving a talk and just from listening to her you can almost understand why she is so successful. Her work ethic really inspires me.
Maxwell Donker, INNOQIK
Managing a Technological Business is very interesting. Unlike others Business whose management revolves about Business, with Technological Companies, you not only manage the business but also the technological growth and sustainability of it. One major lesson I have learnt is to one has to keep up with time and if possible be ahed of time. Technology evolves every second. Something that works better and fine today may not be up to the accepted standard the next day. You always have to make your product and business relevant to your client else the business takes a down turn.
What was the most difficult challenge your business faced this year?
Maxwell: Well, we have not been in business for a year yet, but in the short period we have been operating, a major challenge has been the process of taking clients through the learning curve and managing change. Customers always want more even when they were ignorant of the impending need. We have to help them match our services and value proposition to their needs and deliver efficiently.
How do you know when you are failing in Product Development and how do you make a correction - do you make the decision on your own, or do you consult your team?
Most of the time, decisions for corrections is in consultation with the team. This is because the decision to take a particular line or route is initiated by myself but discussed and agreed at the team level. That way everyone buys into the vision and revised to make the most out of that decision. With that in place, when changes are going to be made, every member of the team must be made aware and ready to shift for the change to take place. Identifying failure in Product development is mainly through quality assurance analysis which is also agreed at the initiation of each product segment, that way once we are out of line with our blue print we automatically know something is failing which can either be from a good source or bad.
What signals from your consumers do you look for to signify that you are winning?
Some of the few signals from consumers that signify our product or service is winning is when consumers continue to use our services and ask for more improvement and efficiency. That make me know we are still solving a need and have to make it more efficient. Another is when they are willing to give advice and share ideas t improve service delivery.
Microsoft BizSpark Member Eric Edelstein, EVLY
Be prepared for a fast but exciting journey, and accept that change will happen constantly in the early stages of growing the business. Every day at evly is an adventure.
evly is a startup, so of course, funding, funding, funding! The other thing is that as evly is in such a new cutting edge industry, the evly team spends a lot of energy and effort educating the marketplace.
Who would you like to be your mentor, and what would you ask him or her?
For most of my life, I would have said Richard Branson, but in the last few years, after reading the "7 Day Weekend", I would jump at the opportunity to be mentored by Ricardo Semler, who has steered the fastest growing company in South America, SEMCO.
Who is your mentor, and what was the last great thing he or she told you and your team?
I have a number of mentors - the last coffee I had with one of my mentors, they told me their story of how they built up their business's - that kept me inspired for days.
What has overjoyed you in the past month?
Obviously, the number 1 item was when evly was chosen as one of the top 40 in the Demo-Africa competition, allowing us to represent South Africa in Kenya in October. Also, every time we get feedback from one of the organisations using the evly software that they're getting the desired results from our software, it gets me overjoyed.
The evly team - they are the most passionate team I've ever had the pleasure of working with.
When was the last time you fell in love with a product?
About 10 minutes ago when I last looked at the evly website, and saw what we were creating.
What does something in your business vertical need in order for the product to be successful?
The organisations who use our software need to have the ability to realise that organisations who succeed in the future will need to have "constructive engagement" with their customers & fans in order to be successful.
What came first for your company – the product idea or your existence on the internet?
We came up with an idea for evly, and then launched the company, and although we've pivoted a number of times to refine the product idea, the long term vision has always remained consistent.
Is the lean startup process a type of marketing, or is marketing different from customer and product development?
The "lean startup" should be a mindset for the company, as a whole. Get the forward momentum going as quickly as possible, test constantly, iterate, and change quickly and nimbly when required.
How does your company utilize next generation marketing techniques?
evly is a next generation company as a whole - our marketing follows that.
We're running this blog post today to look back at the BizSpark EU Summit which we hosted in the UK. The startups we featured there were in the running for awards at the Summit. If you were following along, you may remember that one of the teams from France came out on top.
The French contingent brought us The Commerce Guys, a group of e-commerce and Drupal developers who have figured out how to use that content management system to create e-commerce solutions that are easy to use and simple to understand.
Here is a video of the CEO of Commerce Guys, Frederic Plais, speaking at SOlutions Linux / Open Source 2011. Video is in French.
Commerce Guys, France
Using the power of Drupal content management to create advanced eCommerce solutions
The big idea
Drupal is the open-source content management tool that has gained a following over the world. Commerce Guys have developed Drupal Commerce, a suite of solutions that harnesses Drupal for powerful eCommerce applications. CEO Frederic Plais says, “People’s expectations of what eCommerce can deliver has increased a lot, so merchants want to match that with sophisticated content that connects with social media and mobile. What we do is focus our knowledge and expertise on providing online merchants with the powerful, responsive, flexible and innovative eCommerce solutions they need to thrive.” Since launch 10 months ago, over 15,000 users – ranging from small companies to large - have signed up for the solution, which comprises a blend of software, consultancy and training, much of which is executed in cooperation with a growing network of partners worldwide. Currently numbering around 40, these partners range from systems integrators and Drupal specialists to digital marketing agencies who advise brands on eCommerce. Team, marketing & finance
Based in Paris, France and in the USA (Ann Arbor, Michigan). The five founders bring an impressive set of CVs to the table, all with 10+ years experience. Apart from CEO Frederic Plais, the others are: North America President Mike O’Connor, CTO Damien Tournoud (who also is one of the main architects of Drupal’s latest version), VP of Community Development Ryan Szrama and VP of Finance Tim Hill. The company raised an initial seed round with Paris-based VC ISAI in 2010 and in March 2012, completed a second round led by Paris-based Alven Capital, with further funding from Finnish based Open Ocean along with ISAI.
While Commerce Guys’ heritage may be Drupal, the open source content management system, the company has collaborated with Microsoft from its early days. Says Frederic Plais, “We know that when we are targeting the enterprise market, a lot of them are going to be on the Microsoft stack. So, if we can get SQL server to work on Drupal Commerce, this opens up a big potential market for us. We are migrating to the Windows Azure platform and KickStart – our Drupal distribution product – is already on Azure. That’s just the first step. We couldn’t scale the way we want to without going to the cloud.” Frederic continues, “There’s a strong team at Microsoft, the support has been great and we’ve been surprised at how they have such a good understanding of open source. I’m sure that this relationship will continue to grow.”
DEMO Africa ended on Friday, but that won't stop us from running our remaining interviews with some of the participants.
Before we do that, big congratulations go to two of our Microsoft BizSpark members, SASA Africa and Flowgear, who both came away with the coveted DEMO Lion title out of a field of 40. In truth the field was much bigger, since this competition was open to all of Africa.
In the run up to DEMO Africa -- and during -- we showcased the work of the several dozen entrepreneurs who bravely presented their ideas to the judges. Here is one that we wanted to highlight. It's with Philip Nyamwaya, of iPay Ltd.
Photo Courtesy of DEMO Africa and CIO Magazine
You've got to ALWAYS be ready to adapt to the changing face of technology. Make use of new technology but don't forget that the fundamentals of running a business don't change... Tech business or not.
How do you know when you are failing in product development and how do you make a correction – do you make the decision on your own, or do you consult your team?
The most important decisions are based on the market response and how our business partners are performing. I review KPIs and then sit with my team to see how to respond as effectively as possible.
Positive verbal feedback and REFERRALS :-)
Before we go, looking back at Tom Debass, letting people know how important this conference is for Africa and for entrepreneurs.
To introduce our next Microsoft Ambassador, we turn to Singapore. Vishnu Prasad works for SGTechCamps, based in Singapore, and he is one of the twenty ambassadors we have around the world, who are looking in on the entrepreneurs and developers in his corner of the world.
Microsoft BizSpark was created about three years ago with the purpose to introduce startup founders and developers to free Microsoft Software that will help them work toward building a company to scale. So far, there are about 50,000 startups in the "portfolio," with many more signing on every week. If you would like information, please look into it at Microsoft Bizspark.
Vishnu: The product, which we see as our way to develop mobile applications for the Windows 8 platform.
Has starting your own company provided any answers about your life? Have you discovered something about yourself that you didn’t know before?
Vishnu : I have yet to be a full-fledged entrepreneur. My current and primary focus is to develop applications for the Windows 8 platform
Vishnu : I am a newbie who has yet to learn many things and I am eager to meet like-minded people and learn from their experiences.
What problem are you facing now?
Vishnu : Planning the timing of my entry into the space.
What were you successful in doing this week?
Vishnu : Exploring Windows 8 platform , looking forward to contribute as much as I can to the Windows 8 platform. Looking forward to the Windows Phone 8 SDK
Vishnu : I consult with my friends and team on my problem and take necessary corrections.
Vishnu: Anyone who has a technical expertise on a Mobile platform. Would like to discuss a few ideas on how to have apps on Windows platform.
Vishnu: Attending MS events and Exploring on the Windows 8 applications
Vishnu: SharePoint 2010 , Windows Phone 7
This BizSpark company just finished a term with Y-Combinator and is actively working with large clients in the media space as they scale to 1 million customers. We asked their CEO, Michael Fitzgerald, a few questions about their experience as a team running a successful startup.
First, a little bit about Submittable. I met these guys in San Francisco, as they were beginning their time at Y-Combinator, and they revealed to me that they were working on a light box-style publishing solution for document sharing. It's much more than that, but here are the basics. Everything on the web is a duplicate of a duplicate of a duplicate. If you are using document sharing services, nobody is looking at the same document. They are looking at copies of what everyone else is doing. And through some kind of mojo, when changes are made to the document, it all sometimes gets back together in the right way and no headaches. But not always. There's usually a snarl up.
Submittable's Fitzgerald, seen standing in Missoula, Montana between members of his team, wanted to solve this by making sure that when a team looked at a document, they were only looking at a single document, the same document. Take away the submission management headaches, offer a huge scaling platform for publishers, and you are on your way to a nice business.
Product is not 100% technology. In the last few years design and tone of the company have become just as important. Don’t make software, make a product, something people enjoy. Coming from a developer background, I always assumed the tech part drove the company.
Working through each stage of growth: getting the first 100 customers, then scaling from 1K to 10K. We’re now trying to get to 1M, and there are new challenges.
Also, raising money in Missoula, Montana was an invigorating experience!
User feedback and Signup vs. Adoption rate. We talk directly with potential and existing customers. You can hear it in their voices when something is less than impressive in the product.
Lots of interaction, good or bad, is usually good. Even if people are complaining about lack of features or bugs, this means they care.
When you need to ask questions on your team, who do you go to? Who do you usually turn to outside of your organization to ask questions?
We have some amazing angel investors and advisors. Each seems to have a particular skill set. One is perfect at money problems. Two have built their own software companies from nothing. I check in with them constantly. We’ve had some disagreements, but even those, in retrospect, were helpful.
One thing entrepreneurs (and people in general) don’t always understand is that people enjoy helping people who are screwed. First time entrepreneurs are screwed from Day 1! If you’re demonstrating that you’re working hard, you’re not just trying to get rich or waste someone’s time, people will go out of their way to help you, often expecting little in return. One sign of an amateur angel investor is when they’re more concerned about valuation or their own piece of the pie rather than just doing everything humanly possible for the company to succeed.
We’re very lucky to have the mentors we have.
We have a few great mentors: Glenn Kreisel & Steve Saroff (built and sold 2 companies), Corbin Day (a low-key, but hands-on and brilliant angel investor), and the seminal Paul Graham and his Y Combinator.
1) A customer (The editor from The Rumpus) I met yesterday said this: “This aspect of my job sucked until we started using Submittable. My inbox was a nightmare. Submittable saves me 30 minutes a day and from significant anxiety.”
2) Another customer told me we were “Saving Publishing.” That felt great.
3) We moved to Mountain View recently as part of Y Combinator. As a result, our team is living and working together (in the same small apartment). It hasn’t been easy, but we’ve gelled in a way we hadn’t before. Seeing how much work is getting done, the level of intensity and quality, has me overjoyed. Also, our customer-base has recently expanded dramatically with our introduction of custom forms. This has been amazing.
My partners John and Bruce have almost completed a feature (custom forms) in about three weeks that I thought would take 4 months.
I have a pretty heavy crush on Freshbooks. I’m presently in a bad relationship with our own product: wild swings from loving it blindly to hating every screen. We break up every Friday night, then I propose again on Monday morning.
People to procreate and create art and literature. People to put themselves out there.
We conceived of and built a product for about a year called Submishmash. That product slowly morphed into what we are now, Submittable.
Is the lean startup process a type of marketing, or is marketing different from customer and product development? How does your company utilize next generation marketing techniques?
We talk directly with our users and potential users via social networks, email, and blogging. We try to be as transparent as possible. For us, this transparency and openness has become a huge part of our marketing. If someone has a technical issue, our CTO will get on the phone with them. It can get harried, but ultimately leads to great word of mouth. I would call this our marketing strategy: talk with our audience instead of at them. Lean marketing sort of blends into all aspect of your company: customer support, branding, newsletters, social networks, all the ways you communicate about and from your company.
Definitely. It’s changed everything. I mean, this isn’t news: the harder something is, the more rewarding. Also, prior to starting a company, I guess I thought business was wonky bullshit. I’ve found that starting a company has much more in common with art than I ever anticipated. Similar to starting a band or writing a novel, you’re driving without headlights. No one asked you to do it. No one cares if you succeed. It’s just you and your partners making something out of nothing. In this way, it’s a beautiful and gratifying process, even when it’s failing, but when it’s actually working: magic.
Have you heard of Rockstart Accelerator? Whoa, boy. Why not? On November 1, one of the most successful Accelerators -- by number of startups receiving funding after the demo day -- will be opening its applications for another year of awesome.
from a recent Rockstart email that has been circulating Europe, where we have thousands of Microsoft BizSpark members:
With that, we're happy to announce that we will be opening up our applications for 2013! In just over 10 days [November 1] we're opening up the mailbox, ready to receive new applications. We had over 350 applications last year, from around the globe. This year, we are expecting even more. So if you're still working on the same startup and want to take it to the next level, or are building a new project that needs acceleration, put November 1st in your agenda.
It's been nearly a year to the day since we announced our first accelerator program. Since then, we found 10 startups from 5 different countries to go through our 6-month program ending in Silicon Valley for a month, last September. A number of the startups already have received funding just weeks after the demo day (Pastbook, Postcron, Peerby) and more will follow soon. We're very excited to see the rapid progress of the startups in our class of 2012.
You can read up on Rockstart and what they do here.
Put November 1 on your calendar, when applications open up. And here's some inspiration to get you going.
Congratulations to SASA Africa, one of five DEMO Lions at DEMO Africa, which wrapped up today in Nairobi.
SASA Africa is a BizSpark company managed by Ella Peinovich. We asked Ella some questions about what it is like being an entrepreneur in Africa, and we are running her interview this morning to celebrate her victory. Congratulations, Ella, on being a DEMO Lion and a successful BizSpark company.
The Sasa team is continually inspired by the amazing women artisans in Africa whom we work with. Not only is the jewelry these women produce beautiful, they are also incredibly motivated entrepreneurs. From their talent in design, to ingenious use of recycled resources, to creative marketing approaches – these women are smart, driven business owners who want to make an impact on the world. We have been so inspired by their intelligence and leadership despite their inability to access global markets. We cannot wait to see the impact they make now that they can overcome the limitations of the digital divide. Sasa provides the tools needed to link these small-scale artisans directly to the online marketplace leveraging the pervasive mobile phone - providing an opportunity for their leadership, talents and drive to flourish. We are so inspired by these women to provide the support they require to ensure no small-scale producer is left out of the global economy.
Has starting your own company provided any answers about your life? Have you discovered something about yourself that you didn’t know before?
Starting Sasa, our own company, has proven how powerful and effective we can be. Throughout the course of our work, meeting and networking and building the range of resources we need to develop Sasa, over and over and over again we have been met with enthusiasm for what we are creating. We hear enthusiastic comments like “an e-commerce platform for emerging economies – connecting off the grid sellers to on-line consumers– why hasn’t someone already done this?” We have learned over and over again how important it is to trust our own thinking – as 100% first movers on this technology we trusted our understanding that women artists in emerging economies, given the tools, can be powerful actors in the global economy. If we had just gone along with traditional ideas of the global marketplace, we would never have launched Sasa. What we are creating through Sasa will revolutionize the global market place. As women entrepreneurs in technology, e-commerce and design – we have been able to make our dreams a reality, testing out our minds and our ideas fully. We have discovered that applying our biggest ideas pays off. There is no point in holding back. Go for it!
We work and live in a startup culture that prizes money, funding, success over things like failure, which is actually one of the most important things that can happen to a founder or a developer.
This blog post was written by Douglas Crets, Community Manager for Microsoft BizSpark. For information on how you can get free software and support from Microsoft, visit our BizSpark pages.
Fail is perhaps the most important ingredient in success, because in failing we find the seeds of our transformation. This is something that Carl Jung learned and wrote about in his famous Red Book, during nearly a decade of separation from the teachings of Sigmund Freud, the onset of World War I, and the tangible and sickening anxiety caused by a nearly global transition of countries and cities into the modern era.
And it's something that the leading innovators of the current day go through before they invent, make or develop some of the objects and services we consider essential in our lives. We can forget that, when so much of what we read and experience seems to be about the finished product. This lesson was starkly presented at FailCon this week in San Francisco. FailCon is a really interesting cultural experience of failure, presented by Cass Phillips, founder. It's a way of getting people to focus on the seeds of success, rather than to think about and glorify only those who have succeeded. Here are a few notes from that event, which highlight this lesson. I feel strongly that other founders and developers should take away ideas from these notes. It's one of the things that make working on a startup fun, in hindsight. No glory without struggle, as they say.
Suneel Gupta, VP of Product Development, Groupon
First we hear from Suneel Gupta, VP of Product Development at Groupon. Yes, so Groupon is apparently struggling, when it comes to stock price, but there's an untold story here. First of all, how many buzz-worthy startups have IPO'd in the past three years? How did they get to a public offering? What did they learn along the way? What role did Suneel play in making sure the teams put together a great product? How did they iterate in the runup to the IPO and what lessons did they have to learn in order to push something out that people felt enough confidence in that they invested what they did?
Bullets are easy to hide behind
It's hard to stop to actually put down a creative concept on paper, but it’s also a really important thing to do. It gives you ownership of the idea, it creates a tangible connection to what you want to get out the door.
You need the right team, time to get something done.
Go slow. Your minimal viable product should be like the tip of the iceberg. But about 1/3 of what you want out there, and that is where you start. “We made a fundamental mistake and we went after all of this at once,” says Suneel. After being excited about seeing features and an end goal, “We tried to build all the products, when we thought about minimal, we thought about quality.” Taking half of those features, and making those features fantastic is actually the right thing to do, even when your engineers are so gung ho about what they love building that they don't want to stop.
Don’t go down a vortex of time. You really want to get to your next act.
Don't forget about the ‘art of the question,’ learn that asking great questions leads you to a better and better product. Don't assume that you know what is good for your consumer or user group. You don't. They do, though. The excellent question gives you the right data and the right feedback to make something amazing.
As a developer, a founder, or someone on the product team, you have to constantly ask, "Do we go after ideas and questions that only solidify what we already know? Or do we pursue things that tell us what we don’t know? A user experience will tell you about what startups do for people, but most startups stop at this point of getting data. They need to listen to the data that tells you that the hypothesis is wrong." Suneel points to asking great questions, but also really paying close attention to user interaction. He points to a focus group where Groupon engineers and product managers asked users to tell them answers to questions and to narrate their experience of the new product iteration, but, in a fascinating turn of events, they paid close attention to what the users were actually doing when they talked about what they were doing. They were often doing something opposite and experiencing less experience than what they said they were doing and experiencing. Take note, developers, your users are your biggest fans, but they may be telling fibs to themselves!
On this user experience over narrative: “It’s something that I under-indexed on” says Suneel.
Groupon created Rewards using some of this interactive testing, and they made it as a way to make people more loyal to the business, not to Groupon, in the hopes that that loyalty to the shopping experience consumers want to build loyalty with would also create loyalty to Groupon.
Build something to fail fast and to let something go
When do you step back and refactor your own code base vs. continuing to move quickly. (what is the actual pressure to move fast?). Says Suneel: “It was probably the best move we could have made” to hold off on adding new features.
Gina Bianchini, founder of startups MightyBell and Ning
Then we had perhaps the most candid and entertaining fail talk of the day, by Gina Bianchini, who talked eloquently and transparently about Ning and MightyBell, and what's she's learned from seeking and gaining funding.
Here's what she said was important:
We have the notes from our time there under the video.
Find the small moments, plan ahead, and
Most of the colossal failures find their seeds in small moments when decisions could have been made within the focus of the fundamental values of the vision.
What was actually the most important circumstances for her most amazing and thoughtful moments? It was not the stuff that made her think, "I'm a f***ing genius." It was, she says, “The things that were the throwaway moments – oh, f--- we really have to fix this…things you do because you just do them – turn out to be the best ideas ever.”
“You never know where good ideas come from. You have to stay open to people’s feedback, people’s reactions, people’s questions, to the things you build or believe in, and also know when to drive or to adjust.”
Her major lesson from NING was that working with communities gathered around interests, passion and goals has sustained her more than anything else: “I have never seen a more powerful driver of change, of real connection, and I have met some of the most amazing people online, and I just fundamentally enjoy it. I did not know that before NING.”
"You can’t do things without a small group of people who you can be real with”
“I don’t want to go to one of those conferences where everyone is just standing around…drinking from the fire hose of success.” This made me laugh out loud, because it really is true. I don't find a lot of feelings of association around people who believe that they have succeeded or that they are constantly succeeding. For me, those people sound like they are aspiring, and the problem with aspiring, is that despite all the talk about being in the present moment, they are really stuck both in the past and in the future, spending a lot of time drawing energy out of the past and forecasting information into the future. I want to know just how things really are. What makes you real? I am certainly carrying around a backpack full of real and it's not all pretty, and sometimes I really question my success. All I think is important is, "Am I happy?" Have I helped other people to be happy? Do I add to their day?
Gina moved on and said something very important. Her focus was on what has been made for the market, and she said, young, white guys are really too much the bulk of the people deciding the output of tech and products / services for the market. “A lot of stuff is built for a world where there are no chicks in it. And winning teams going forward are going to be paying more attention to gender intelligence and having men and women on teams," she said.
Where BizSpark Fits Into this Equation
We are trying very hard here to bring you quality information from people who can offer real intelligence on building startups. This is part of that effort. If you are running a young startup -- less than five years old - or you are a developer trying to build for a startup, no matter your competency, experience, and beliefs about what stack is best, you should look into the community we are building, starting with joining our tribe of over 50,000 startups using the free software we give them.
You can also read about a whole host of other startups using Azure and building for the cloud.
You can follow us on Twitter, and you can join nearly 40,000 other people like you talking with us daily on Facebook at the Microsoft BizSpark Group.
She was not there live, but this is the video she sent in to DEMO Africa, which opened very early this morning in Nairobi. She believes, like we do, that innovation in Africa means great things for the rest of the world. Watch the video and if you have any questions about the BizSpark companies that are presenting there, or how to be a BizSpark company and improve your chances of success, in Africa, or anywhere else, you can find all the information you need here.
We are covering the live stream of the Windows 8 launch in New York City right here.
In a place like Silicon Valley, it can sometimes feel like companies are started simply because it’s the thing to do. Just as beanie babies were all the rage during my middle school years, I’ve met founders more enamored with the idea of starting a company than the technology being developed or problem getting solved. I understand this mindset as well as the next entrepreneur, because it mirrors my own path to finding the right idea to focus on.
This blog post was written by Keaton Swett, CEO, MindSumo.
The MindSumo Gents, members of Microsoft BizSpark
As young, hungry (and certainly wet behind the ears) entrepreneurs, my co-founders and I were eager to change how people shared opinions with friends developing a new photo-ranking web app. Users could post sets of pictures for their friends to rank in order of preference, providing a fun and social way to receive feedback through photo sharing. We quickly realized that the tool was more useful to teenage girls looking to get their friends’ opinions on outfits and haircuts than anything else. Nothing against teenage girls, but just weren’t passionate about building a product, (let alone a company) focused on that market.
So, we did what scores of entrepreneurs had done before us – we pivoted. Was it daunting and terrifying? You bet it was. Were there times we wondered whether we should have just continued with our old product? Too many to count. However, we knew that finding the idea we were truly passionate about was what we needed to be successful both personally and professionally.
Luckily, after a great deal of soul searching, market analysis, and advice seeking from mentors, we struck oil with the idea for a marketplace where companies post challenges for college students to solve. As recent college students ourselves, we were passionate about helping students stand out and prove their skills, while giving companies a better method for identifying student candidates. Thus, our new company MindSumo was born, and we have been enjoying the wild ride ever since.
Could the old photo-sharing idea have worked with a wide audience of teenage girls? Perhaps, but that’s not the point. The point is that founders work way too hard to focus on ideas that aren’t meaningful to them. It may sound cliché, but I think Confucius was onto something when he said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
What does MindSumo Do? In Keaton's own words:
We help companies craft their challenges that are posted for college students to solve. This helps the companies get a much better feel for student candidates. We also are compiling a great amount of data with each student profile, which will one day be used as a search database for companies to identify the right candidates.
Death is an easy metaphor, because it's so huge, and it commands attention. And tech reporting uses it. A lot. But what if you, like, really die? What perspective does that bring you?
This post is written by Douglas Crets, the Community Manager for Microsoft BizSpark
Chip Conley, former CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, gave what was probably the most important keynote address of any conference I have been to, while opening up FailCon in San Francisco on Monday. It was a story about how he had to stop managing the successful hotel chain he managed, and find the things in life that he is passionate about, and really get out of the skin he was in and find a new self for himself.
Here's what he said, and here is why I think it's relevant to tech startup founders and developers to understand what he said.
Some background: Conley has gone through two recessions (and this one, globally speaking, is actually more like a depression). His son landed in federal prison for eight months. He lost a relationship. One of his best friends committed suicide. He was not happy as Executive Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Joie de Vivre, of one of the coolest hotel chains in the world, after it had been bought by Geolo Capital. And then one day in 2008, an infection that started after a broken leg got infected became so severe that Chip Conley died. Business, quite simply, got serious.
"I had a death wish; I didn't want to be the identity I was anymore," Conley told the crowd of tech founders, startuppers, and developers, all who paid their entry fee to listen to stories about how really, really successful people, have failed in life.
At some point in 2008, Conley, who was dealing with several life pressures that would have made anyone want to give up on more than one occasion, gave a talk at a hotels conference and collapsed on stage, and died. His heart stopped beating.
What the man could not do for himself, some other something did for him. He learned a valuable lesson -- that there was something entirely important about finding the things in your life that bring you pleasure and happiness, and to do them, to take them up as your personal activities of choice, to really live through them. Or, quite simply, you are not living.
He explained that it was important to have good "psychic hygiene," or to take a "big psychic bath together," so that we understand the reality of life. "We need a catharsis," he said. Crisis, as the late psychotherapist Carl Jung has said, brings us to a moment of transition, and we should be listening to that crisis. In the seeds of that crisis is our humanity.
The reason that this is important to developers is simple, I think. I think it points to exactly why we live -- the world, for all that it could be, is also a kind of series of problems that need to be solved. And the solutions to those problems are often meaningful in themselves. But they are empty solutions if they really do not provide meaning for other people who might also use those solutions to solve their problems.
Refinements on standard operation procedures, or simple features to smartphone apps, are not really going to create meaning. And they really are not that necessary in the long term.
There is also an even greater lesson in Conley's speech to people wishing to take in the insights from those who have failed. The lesson is that perhaps you really need to go through some crisis or a problem before you really can have the kind of understanding that would, in turn, help people believe in the solution you are building them. A solution is a kind of stamp of the soul of its creator. If you really have seen the muck. If you really have been at the door of your own demise, or been through some really hard times, that will come out in your ethos, and in your passionate work and attention to detail.
You know that there is always someone else on the other end of the line, or the connection, and they value their life as much as you value yours. Make something that speaks to that life.
MarkedUp, which offers analytics to mobile apps makers, is going after the growing Windows 8 apps market by offering a mobile apps analytic tool that will even tell you what your app is doing in people's hands when they are sitting in an airplane, or in other instances when they don't have their wireless connection on.
Aaron Stannard, CEO of MarkedUp, says that this is a step ahead of what other apps analytics tools do, and that it's the natural progression of analysis tools for applications and user activities that are escaping the web browser and living on any device.
"The diff between a four star and a five star app is something that people can use offline. Look at a news reader that people are going to be able to use on an airplane. You can use MarkedUp to take a look at how many people try to start the app when they have no connectivity whatsoever," says Stannard. This is vital intelligence for developers.
This offer is now live for Microsoft Bizspark members. You can get free analytics for your Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 apps as of today. Stannard says that they have already done some testing for Windows Phone 8, and when that phone is widely released developers will be able to get functionality for those apps.
This analytics tool will help developers understand what features of their mobile or desktop based apps are working, which parts users like, "They will show you how often content is used by end users, how often the app crashes, and what types of devices or screens they use to access your application," says Stannard. The company has signed on a very large video game company for their mobile based games, but Stanndard is not able to reveal the name. The company is using the analytics tool to figure out how to improve the commercial api for its products.
One of the great things about MarkedUp is that it is positioned to take advantage of the waves of people moving to develop native apps.
Stannard told me, "Our focus is 100% on native applications. It doesn't matter to us if its desktop apps or mobile. In a web app focused world the dev owns 100% of the real estate. They have full control over all of that data that passes through that relationship. In the mobile world, things are different. You have to act within the constraints of the sandbox. You also have to support environments there you don’t have control of the internet connection."
This tool will be available to Microsoft BizSpark members on the offers page.
Tech entrepreneurship just got sexy.
Fresh from the Web Summit in Dublin (or not-so-fresh given the myriad parties that went alongside DWS), it's time to reflect on the state of entrepreneurship in Europe. And it’s in a fine state.
This post was written by Claire Lee, Business Development Strategy Analyst and Director of Partnerships, STRATEGIC & EMERGING BUSINESS TEAM
There was a time when all the press, whether broadcast media, or the niche tech press online, was all Doom and Gloom in Ireland and across most of the European sub-continent. Not now. The glow and glamour of technology startups has spread like a virus by leading Irish, European and global media outlets, including TNW and TechCrunch. Someone got the message and last week around 4,000 individuals, influentials and inspirational leaders, movers and shakers descended on the fair city. There was not a hotel room to be had, and the whole country paused to cover the goings-on originating around the RDS and the Four Seasons, that spread throughout the city by night. What buzz.
Like others, I was a little overwhelmed by the full agenda, covering two days. The week evaporated. Inevitably, I was running between the main stage keynotes and the themed stages, spending time with the startups and with our team at the Microsoft area with the new Windows 8 devices (which was mega busy).
Someone needs to invent cloning technology, and soon.
Dublin Web Summit 2012 can legitimately claim to be Europe’s largest tech event, attracting an incredible 200 high-profile speakers and thought leaders, featured on four stages, watched by a crowd of 4,025 -- which is a record for a tech event -- who conspired to introduce too many devices on the crippled Wi-Fi network. Connectivity was so bad, we had to talk to each other in person.Having arrived on Tuesday in time to prepare for my judging duties at the finals of the Spark of Genius startup competition on the first morning, I researched some of the 100 finalists that represent the best of web startups in four categories: social, consumer, mobile and enterprise.
We’ve been to a lot of these competitions. Anyone in the industry knows we suffer from competition fatigue and see a fair proportion of crocks. One tweet in the #websummit stream said: “I know what this reminds me of – a school fair. Where 90% are crackpot ideas that won’t go anywhere, and 10% are genius ideas that will be game changers”.
The quality of the startups at DWS was outstanding.
From over 1,000 applicants, here are all the 100 finalists plus the ones that made it through.
My faves: in the Mobile category that I was judging, I am intrigued by Ether Books from the UK, and think they’ll go on to great things. Awesome founding team. As judges, we were unanimously impressed by 45 Sound (Irish startup, who went on to the next round). Hard not to like Farmflo (farming in the cloud!) and fellow BizSpark member startup and friends from Seedcamp, Nuji.
Three notable finalists Vibease, Ovelin and Tictail received €100,000 in cash, having emerged from the quick-fire rounds that took place simultaneously on two stages on the Wednesday, and the Thursday morning. It was a chore, keeping up with all the innovation.
And it's hard not to remember Vibease and the founder from Singapore who, with wit and wisdom, told us that couples can stay intimate by using their app and – er – “personal massager”. The theory is that a woman hands over control of the ‘device’ to be activated by her partners’ smartphone, though they are separated by distance. Thus reducing the divorce rate. Eureka! Buzz, indeed.
Then, among what was very stiff competition (fnar) – SmartThings emerged as outright winner. They make your life more awesome.
It’s got to be tough for folks pitching to what is a very sophisticated crowd. I always feel a degree of nervousness, on their behalf. Nowhere to hide under the bright lights of the RDS. Here’s last year’s winner Datahug co-founder Connor Murphy (also a BizSpark member startup) with his advice and tactics for pitching.
Bumped into Connor (who does give good hugs) as we exited the Leaders Lunch held across from the Founders Lunch at the same venue.
Well done to Natasha Sherling for suggesting and organizing this one. Sometimes you feel in the minority as a girl at tech conferences. Not this one. Hundreds of us, in one room. Sometimes, these ‘diversity’ events can be a bit – how shall I say – less than impressive. But the speakers and the panel were really good. Marcy Simon suggested “next year this should be on the main stage” – good idea. Diversity is not the right term here. Inclusion, might be.
Ireland has a solid record attracting established IT companies (including Microsoft) and is well-regarded as one of the leaders in foreign direct investment. Enterprise Ireland and the IDA do a lot together to support this effort.
For me, one of the highlights around Web Summit has to be the focus on indigenous Irish/European innovation, and on young people – specifically the programs that inspire them to choose a path in the technology industry and to create products and services, and build a business. Never before have we seen such a spotlight on youth entrepreneurship and on social entrepreneurship as the one that surrounded DWS.
James Whelton, renowed activist and hacker, was named Ashoka Fellow. Fantastic.
Here’s Josh and Michael from Microsoft Ireland (photo below) with two of the young rock stars that form part of the Coder Dojo movement in Ireland and literally comprise the next generation tech startups. I’m so pleased to see Microsoft behind this initiative. We have a huge focus on Students Startups and Growth Startups through ‘the Sparks’ – DreamSpark, BizSpark and now YouthSpark.
On that note – I have to commend the local Microsoft team for delivering a great event partnership.
Last but not least, we wanted to continue our investment in Ireland and in Irish Startups – so we just announced a campaign with NGen Ireland. Get nominating today. Let’s keep the momentum from Web Summit in Dublin and spread the love.
See you next year!
The Windows 8 launch is right around the corner and recently Microsoft and New York Tech Meetup teamed up to host a workshop and hackathon @WeWork Lounge in NYC.
This blog post was written by Neha Bhaskar, SR CHANNEL & ECOSYSTEM Marketing Manager at Microsoft, in NYC.
There were some really cool demos there with Purpella winning the hackathon with their supercool app and design. Here’s a brief interview with their Chief Designer Lena and Co-founder. Daniel.
Tell us a bit about your app
Purpella is a tool to build human connections and the best app you can find to meet with people with similar interests in small groups. We help people start small gatherings before or after cool events in your city-maybe grab a dinner or drinks together before a concert. You can choose the venue, time around the event.
It really helps build genuine human connections amongst people with similar interests.
What came first for you-the team or the idea?
For us, the team definitely came first. We’re a bunch of designers, developers and marketers who’ve been involve with the startup community for long. Lena-our Chief Designer graduated Rhode Island School of Design. Dan is the co-founder of Startups.hk
aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship among the youth in Hong Kong.
What inspired you to work on this idea?
There are a lot of applications that let you do things offline-such as order food from home instead of sharing a meal with friends. A lot of our lives are losing that human connection.
We wanted to change that and get people together to do something together and build those personal connections. We feel that those connections are best built in small groups–so you could meet over a meal before a concert or share a cab ride together.
And how far along are you in your app development?
We’re still a small team of about 10 people. We’ve been working on this since mid-April and just did a soft Beta launch with friends and family. We hope to have a website up and running in November for a broader launch.
We’ve been totally blown away by the new Windows Phone and Windows 8 User Experience and hope to have a Windows Phone app in December followed by a Windows 8 app. We’re looking for developers to come work with us on that!
What motivated you to start in NYC vs Silicon Valley?
We feel our app is very applicable and valuable to NYC. A lot of people, when they finish school, move to NYC. You lose old connections and it’s a new circle of friends you need to make. So we wanted to launch this in the city. Sometimes it’s hard to make those personal connections in a huge city like NYC and we help you build that. NYC is also the capital of events in the country- everything from exhibitions, performances, events etc.
Though NYC still has some catching up to do with Silicon Valley, the tech scene here is growing very fast. We see 3-4 tech events every night here! And Tech Talent has not been an issue for us –most of us have known each other from before.
Who would you like to be your mentor, and why?
Well, there’s the three everyone says-Paul Graham, Peter Theil and Ron Conway.
We really like meetup.com and that has a lot of lessons for us. Scott (co-founder) did a really good job of building the first offline community and would have great input for us.
Another personal favorite is Steve Ballmer. The past couple of years have seen amazing innovation from Microsoft and we can’t wait for Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8. We love the User Interface!
When was the last time you fell in love with a product?
Lena: Since I’m a designer. I love the new focus on Natural User Interface and touch in the industry.
We are really blown away with Windows Phone. It’s a really consistent design language, with authentically digital content before chrome. It’s quick, responsive with a clean and concise experience. Very impressive how the Microsoft design strategy has evolved
Daniel: I love DropBox. lt’s so elegant and easy to use-very applicable to startups.
Any Advice to others?
Daniel: It’s good to have many ideas but get focused on one. Have a clear plan on what to do and start with putting your team together.
Lena: Success requires a true combination of great talent coming together from all fields-marketing. Biz Dev, design and development. Make sure you have fun along the way!
Lucas Carlson is a magician and developer who lost ten years worth of projects when his server melted down. His solution is a little bit of cloud magic.
He came up with AppFog, a Microsoft BizSpark company, which reduces time and helps developers work across any programming platform, and let's operational people and devs work simultaneously on projects without getting messy. Here's the video documentary explaining it. According to Carlson, "Microsoft has been extremely innovative" in their cloud hosting solutions, "and that has been very helpful."
AppFog with Microsoft BizSpark from AppFog on Vimeo.
Andrew Sullivan is right about the death of print. Newsweek print may be a dead beast in the muck - and for the good. What it means for digital, though, is extremely important. Digital media is about delivering people to people, rather than delivering people to a platform where they have to then imagine their next moves with an abstract notion called the Public.
We are all in the public now, and so directly accessible, that we don't have to believe in generalities. We have to believe in the right things to say, the right things to think, and the right actions to perform. News media, or journalism, is transforming into fixing people's problems, rather than reporting on them.
As Sullivan points out:
There's a reason why Drudge Report and the Huffington Post are named after human beings. It's because when we read online, we migrate to read people, not institutions. Social media has only accelerated this development, as everyone with a Facebook page now has a mini-blog, and articles or posts or memes are sent by email or through social networks or Twitter."
Everyone thinks about the technology or the device -- a dead tree or a tablet -- but all we are talking about here, for the future, is giving people the direct insights of the most important events in their life from the right people, as near to immediate as possible.
And if you look at one of the Microsoft BizSpark companies that is working in media, Flud, you can see one of the first steps in this direction. There is no alliance to a news or media institution. It's highly curated content, meant to be consumed around context and relationships.
Meet Alison Jacobson, CEO of Firestring, one of the DEMO Africa Final 40 set to pitch at the event on October 24-26 in Nairobi.
Here's her pitch for Firestring, as found on the VC4 Africa site:
Firestring is a technology company leading the field of semantic technology leveraging social architecture to radically enhance knowledge management.
As a field-leader in Web 3.0 technologies for the enterprise, our customers use our unique Enterprise Social Networking platform powered by the Firestring Social-Semantic Engine, Serendipity. Our customers use our technologies to structure their unstructured information, creating semantic metadata automatically from their document repositories and collaborating in real-time via our private social networking front-end.
What this means is that Firestring will find the right information for you when you need it. And, in time, that information will also use our algorithms find you.
We asked her a few questions about her startup, as we have been doing with several of the African startup entrepreneurs selected for the Final 40. Her focus seems to be on focus.
Our challenge often boils down to a narrowing of focus. There are so many products we could develop, we get excited by new ideas and opportunities all the time. Our customers are really excited about our products and share our vision of simplifying enterprise information sharing. As entrepreneurs we have to stay focused on taking to market the products we’ve already developed and supporting and enhancing those in live customer environments. This allows us to leverage actual revenue opportunities and has sustained growth. Aligned to this is the challenge of staying focused on creating licensable product that we can sell many times instead of chasing short-term revenue by responding to diverse customer project requirements.
We were really inspired in meeting with the CIO of a global banking and investment group. He was able to blend a genuine and practical understanding of enterprise processes and systems with innovative thinking around cutting-edge web technologies. Often the two are at odds with one another and CIOs see cutting-edge as presenting risk. Instead of only focusing on risk and compliance he articulated the opportunities - defining specific inflection points regarding big data management, mobile technologies and enabling his workforce to be more agile through social business architectures – connecting people to people and information where and when they need it.
I've never been to Dar Es Salaam, but I imagine that methodologies that spark innovation there will be just as useful in Germany or in Amsterdam. This is especially true when the broadly-based idea that makes virtually all startups alike is that they lack resources, but that their teams are not short of the ideas and the guts and muscle to make anything work.
Microsoft BizSpark has been choosing several of these Africa-based startups to interview to highlight what makes the lessons these startups learn on a daily basis similar to those faced by startups worldwide. You can see some of those startup interviews here and on our Facebook community page. You can also go to the DEMO Africa conference page, if you have not already signed up to attend DEMO Africa.
This is Natalino Mwenda, who is acting CEO of Rasello, a company he hopes to pitch at DEMO Africa on October 24-26 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Natalino answered a couple of questions for us in the run up to DEMO.
The foundation of any successful business is a good idea that addresses a consumer need or desire; however, a good idea alone is not always enough to launch a successful business, and your first good idea is not always the greatest. Because technology and the world around us are so dynamic, innovators and managers also need to be flexible to evolve their ideas and businesses accordingly. The Rasello today is different from the initial concept of Rasello. Our company’s evolution is the result of an ongoing process of idea refinement through feedback from our early users and through our network of mentors who have provided invaluable advice and support. One of the important pieces of advice imparted to us is that when you are resource constrained, a good approach to building a business is an incremental approach (i.e., focusing on one key functionality at a time) guided by the larger vision for the company. Finally, managing and growing a technology business is not easy, so having a supportive network of family and friends around you to encourage and support you, particularly in the face of adversity, is really important.
The journey of developing Rasello has been a time of a lot of personal growth and insights. It has taught us that no dream is too big, and that they can only be realized through a conscious decision to wholeheartedly commit ourselves to making the dream into something tangible. Sometimes the biggest obstacle to achieving your dreams is belief in yourself. Rasello was an idea in my head for months before a friend nudged me to develop it further. If you are able to overcome the self-limiting hurdle, nothing is unachievable if you apply hard work and dedication with a little luck. Rasello was dreamt up on the streets of Dar es Salaam and is now a platform currently utilized across Africa (and beyond) by businesses to gain insights about their consumers and communicate to them.
My name is Manoj Nathwani and I founded Price Trakker when I was 17. Price Trakker is basically like a price comparison website. However, instead of tracking prices and feeding the data to the consumer like you or me - the data is fed to the actual company as a B2B service. This means if you are someone who sells digital cameras online, Price Trakker will track your online competitors prices for products and feed you the information to allow you to make price changes to your own website to beat your competitors. This is an amazing new startup, which has really taken off as it very quickly pays for itself by increasing the profitability of our customers by letting them know their competitors prices. We do not use any social media as customers are given a NDA so that their competitors don’t know they are being tracked - otherwise this would defeated the purpose on "spying" on your competitors in the first place!
You may have read about Manoj before. He was profiled in an MSN blog post about his young startup.
We asked Manoj where we can follow him on social networks, and this is what he told us:
My company doesn't have any social media presence as we are a B2B company, another thing to note is that customers use our service under a NDA so that their competitors don't know they are using our service
I do, however, use my own personal twitter account to advertise Price Trakker as well as my Facebook profile
I am an active user of my Brunel University Entrepreneurs group
Also I am a member of Entrepreneurs In London group.
DEMO Africa is only a few days away. So, to get ready, we are showcasing interviews from nearly a dozen we have done with some of the 40 entrepreneurs who are slated to demo or launch at DEMO Africa October 24. Here is Collins Mugume, founder of Meka.
We started building the Meka platform early 2011, it is not until mid 2012 that we had a stable platform. We failed a number of times, from the design to functionality. We knew we were failing from the routine tests we carried out on every stage of development. We had a team of independent users that tested the platform at every stage. That is how we were able to tell whenever we were failing. We made corrections by going back to the drawing board and coming up with better ways or better code to make the platform deliver. The decision to make changes or revise a module or any functionality that wasn't delivering as expected was/is carried out by the team not just me. I personally think team work is very crucial in product development. There is a lot that an individual my over look and yet it is very important for the product’s success.
Independent referrals – To me there is nothing more assuring that our service is being appreciated than a user telling a friend or someone else about the platform. That independent decision for one to spread the word, to market your product is real evidence that your product is serving its purpose hence winning.
Here's the write-up for Meka:
Meka is the industry innovator in comparison shopping, price and product reference. Very many buyers/consumers waste a lot time moving from place to place looking for items or simply information about different items they are interested in sometimes without luck. The many times buyers are taken advantage of/cheated because they had no idea what the item costed at the store next door.
With Meka, consumers can quickly obtain free and unbiased information about products, services, prices, location, vendors and sellers with ease either from their mobile phones or computers before making a purchase. For the vendors, there is nothing better than getting information about your items straight to the buyer or potential buyers without breaking a sweat. Having online presence without stressing about a website and all the related logistics. Meka platform is made up of a Website, SMS and Smartphone apps/Mobile. There is a huge mobile audience that the vendors now have an opportunity to reach out with ease. With over 14 million mobile users and 4.2 million internet users in Uganda as of end 2011, the audience is huge!
BizSpark has grown so large that it now covers over 100 countries and about 50,000 startups. We have recently started a BizSpark Ambassador series, which takes you into the minds of startuppers around the world, and helps you get a view to what is actually happening on the ground in various countries.
The BizSpark story cannot be just one point of view, and it isn't. With about 50,000 startups in it, it only makes sense to have ambassadors in almost every country we are growing in to showcase what they see in the countries where they innovate and iterate their products and companies. Last week we covered Brazil. This week, we are looking into Calcutta, India.
Meet Arunava Chatterjee, founder of WebWizard Technologies.
Well, to be very honest.. managing a technological business is always needs 100% dedication, eagerness to learn and adopt new things everyday. If you are a technical guy, you also have to adopt managerial skills very fast to improve organization's scalability. If you want to make your venture a successful one, you need to devote 24/7/365 on it.
Getting good resources. I personally took 100's of interviews to sort out good, dedicated resources.
As we are also a start-up, we are applying for fund raising..but the success rate is not good here in India. We don't have the crowd funding concept here. I tried to apply on various crowd funding websites, but all of them are looking for US Incorporation Certificates. As we are India based, we don't have that. One of our SaaS-based product is not scaling up due to funds. We know there is potential, but we can't proceed at this moment.
Got a great client this week. X Trade Brokers. We are doing their web based trading portal. XTB is a McLaren Mercedes F1 team sponsor.
What advice do you have to give about securing funding, working with code, or building a scaleable business?
Always try to incorporate your business in a start-up friendly environment. It will be helpful to get good resource as well as help you with good mentors. Try to make a genuine product to attract VC's ..but at first try for crowd funding.. You never know, you might get a chance to get a partner as well.. Always try to maintain code base for later use.
Write biographies or interview your partners in the field. Who are they and introduce them to our community.
Actually our story is a little different.. I was working as a freelancer in my college days.. At that time it was just for fun and getting some extra money. We were three in total. Though we were in college, we still tried our level best to maintain professionalism. It clicked. We formed a company. It was in 2008. But after few months we felt, we need to adopt more to maintain and to sustain properly in this business. I got a support of my Mom at that time. Everybody left the company and my mom continued the business .. In later 2011 I finally left my job and came into the business again. After that I got another partner. We are three (3) partners now.
Arunava Chatterjee: Me
Anita Chatterjee : My mom. Technology enthusiast. But completely non technology person. Age 55. She has over 20 years of marketing experience and teaching experience in Insurance domain. Nowadays, she helps us on recruitment as a recruitment head and maintain finance.
Sanjib Ghosh : A serial entrepreneur. Age 47.He is having a Hardware & Networking business for the last 14 years. Named : Hertech Infotech. He has other export oriented business as well.
Work culture in our office is very friendly. We are always in touch with each an every person associated with Webwizard Technologies. We always take opinions of every body.
Repeat Business and sometime Bonus from Clients :)
Officially we work Monday to Friday 10am to 7pm IST and we have a half day on Saturdays. On every Saturday(10am to 2pm), we schedule a meeting where everyone has the same right to ask or consult .
To be very honest 1. is Mr. Narayan Murthi (Founder of Infosys Ltd) and 2.is Mr.Bill Gates . If I get a chance, I'd like to learn the sustainable growth strategies and how to develop next gen leaders who will be our base in coming days.
Mr.Hari Balasubhramaniam (Founder & Director of Ontrack Systems Ltd) . He guided me quite nicely about the market prospects and orientation on mobile apps domain.
Successfully closed some deals and started creating team for mobile apps. They are working with us now.. Attended a Job Fair for the first time as a recruiting company.
Very tough question. One is Mr.Alok Kejriwal of Games2Win. One of their app is in top 5 position in iPhone and Android app store.
Last week :) Still playing his app :)
Initially some funding.. so that we can hire a good marketing team and as well as can start social media marketing, Advertisements on Internet etc.
As we started as a service based company and trying to move onto product base, Getting more clients and growing will be the initial but with a must focus on product.
It makes a man very very busy and perfect on your ultimate goal. Made me much more focused on a particular issue.
Entrepreneurs can visit Microsoft BizSpark and discover how they can benefit from receiving free software and in some cases free instance hours on Windows Azure, subject to availability and certain qualifying conditions.
You can find Arunava on Twitter @InArunava
On Facebook (Company) , and in these groups where he shares content and interacts with other developers and entrepreneurs.
Bangalore Start-ups (https://www.facebook.com/groups/blrstartups/)
Startup Saturday - Kolkata (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ssgenie/)
TIE Kolkata (https://www.facebook.com/groups/tiekolkata/)
Hyderabad Startup (https://www.facebook.com/groups/325376410863612/)
Kolkata IT Professional (https://www.facebook.com/groups/kolkatait/)
Kolkata IT Startups (https://www.facebook.com/groups/kolkataitstartup/)
Private Equity (https://www.facebook.com/groups/2209640960/)
Pune Startups (https://www.facebook.com/groups/punestartups/)
Find a Co-Founder (https://www.facebook.com/groups/250854118266951/)
Here's an amazing fact about Africa: You can fit nearly all of the land masses of nearly all of the most economically prolific countries in the world INSIDE Africa. See this graphic below, courtesy of a question on Quora.
Here's another mind-blowing fact about Africa. The cloud computing industry is growing massively, and at DEMO Africa, Alexander Mehlhorn from South Africa will be pitching about his startup's cloud solution to an audience eager to understand how innovation is pitching forward on the continent.
We've been asking a series of questions to entrepreneurs based in Africa in the run up to the Microsoft BizSpark-sponsored event in Nairobi on October 24. Mehlhorn's Framework One specializes in bespoke enterprise system development and business process automation using the cloud, namely Windows Azure services.
According to Mehlhorn, "Rapid development is done using our own in-house developed framework “CloudCore” and custom built Visual Studio extensions. Our focus is on automating your business processes to ensure you can rapidly deliver high quality cost effective products/ services to your clients. We are able to maintain a high level of scalability whilst decreasing your overall expenditure by understanding and applying cloud computing principles."
We asked him a few questions about his experience as an entrepreneur, and this is what he told us.
BizSpark: What have you learned about managing a technological business that you would pass on to the next generation?
In the age of cloud computing and SaaS, all tools a technology driven company requires can be found online at a much lower cost of ownership than setting up a traditional, on-site IT infrastructure.
BizSpark: What signals from your consumers do you look for to signify that you are winning? When I justifiably know that we have improved their business to an extent where they now spend less or make more money than we are costing them.
BizSpark: When was the last time you fell in love with a product?
When I realized the benefits of SaaS for any business and was able to adjust our own offering by using Windows Azure as a platform for our own system framework.
Visit us to see how you can become a Microsoft BizSpark company, which offers free software, support and visibility to startups making less than one million dollars in revenue each year. Visit these sites for more information on DEMO Africa, and Lions@frica.